It has to be my first stop on my first day back in Singapore, after a seventeen-hour flight from San Francisco. To get to the three-story structure, I’ve had to walk along underpasses leading to passageways, up moving staircases and in and out of shopping malls, through many-story towers and past convention centers. When I step out at last into the street, I count twenty-one high-rises poking into the heavens, and just this one intimate sanctuary at their heart. As I arrive at last at the low-level jewel-case tucked amidst the skyscrapers, it’s to find a line already snaking around the white verandah. There’s been no official notice of the event—no advertisement—but word has clearly crackled around all Singapore: after nine months of being shuttered, the first public space of the new Raffles has opened again, three hours ago.
I step out of the blinding sunlight, into the cool and dark. I might be stepping into my life from thirty-four years ago, on the day of my first visit here. Peanut shells are scattered across the hardwood floor. Gunny sacks and rattan chairs sit under the undulating hula-sway of gossamer-thin fans fluttering from the ceiling. In one corner Elizabeth Taylor, in a large, framed black-and-white photo, appears to be helping herself to a piece of history; in another, Somerset Maugham is taking silent measure of the storied bar in its latest incarnation.
At the far end of the new Long Bar an elegant young woman in a grey suit and high ponytail is shaking up something zesty and strong, here at the very site where the Singapore Sling was invented, one hundred and three years ago. The Sikh doorman, commemorated in photographs on every continent, is seated at the bar, impeccable as ever in his starched white uniform and turban, gold epaulettes gleaming as strangers quiz him about his twenty-eight years of guiding eminences into and out of their chariots. An elderly couple in new-millennium sola topis—floppy white bonnets—sit red-faced from the sun as they take relieved sips of their tall pink elixirs. The sounds of Nagoya and Madrid and Somerset crisscross in the air around me.
I count twenty-one high-rises poking into the heavens, and just this one intimate sanctuary at their heart.
Singapore is a city of never-ending propulsion and acceleration. But within the bar, there’s no sound of traffic at all. I can almost smell the frangipani, the heliconia and bird’s-nest ferns from the four officially named gardens all around. Through the windows I see green on all sides, and the wedding-dress walls of other parts of the hotel, commanding an entire city block. It’s not just the nostalgic furnishings and familiar libations here that take one back; it’s the sense of leisure and rocking-chair ease. In a city that’s all business and movement, here I can feel I’m human again, freed from to-do lists to do anything—or nothing—at all.
A pop-up shop around the corner is selling the hotel’s coveted Champagne Truffle Snow-Skin Mooncakes, for Mid-Autumn Festival, as famous as the Christmas carolers who gather around the tree in the lobby in December. A temporary gift-shop down the road is ensuring that visitors can return to their other homes, in Bristol or Fukuoka, with Raffles-encrusted tea towels and sugar bowls. Members of the Raffles staff have been showing me photos of the 22nd-century spaces that are being built only a few yards away to give the hotel a new dynamism and brightness. Any legend that’s been around for one hundred and thirty-two years knows: it can honor the past only by changing with the times.
History in the making
Outside, more than six hundred workers have been laboring for four hundred days to bring the institution into a new century. The façade has been stripped back by hand, through thirty and even forty layers of paint. “For a building that’s white,” Raffles’ director of marketing Jesmine Hall confessed to me over lunch, with a laugh, “there’s a lot of paint.” Salt that has been encrusted in the building’s pillars since the days when it stood along the sea has been painstakingly removed, a process that takes three weeks. (Raffles never moved, but landfill projects now leave the hotel half a mile inland). Every one of Raffles’ 886,000 items—antiques, beds, chandeliers, a $120,000 Persian carpet—has been meticulously catalogued and placed into storage.
Since this is a historic monument, not a nail can be removed without the approval of the National Heritage Board. Yet when the hotel officially reopens in August the grandfather clock that stands as steady as the lobby around it (and is perhaps even older) will still be tolling the hours as it has done for decades, and when it strikes eight every evening, you may still hear Noël Coward’s “I’ll See You Again.” The cast-iron verandah and balustrades and cornices—and everything such terms evoke—will still mark out the property as unique. But as the hotel advances boldly into a new millennium, seventeenth-century vases have been auctioned off to make room for a fresher sense of luxury.
Any legend that’s been around for one hundred and thirty-two years knows: it can honor the past only by changing with the times.
Singapore is celebrating its bicentennial this year, but, as many point out, that marks only the arrival of the British in a port that had been in existence already for five hundred years. And while Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles visited Singapore for barely a month between February 1819 and October 1822, it was his resident and commandant, Major General William Farquhar, who stayed three and a half years, overseeing the settlement’s development and effectively ensuring its success. Yet Raffles the man is celebrated in at least seventeen biographical works (and a musical), and you can feel as if you’re walking through his private playground as you reel in modern Singapore, from Raffles City to Raffles Landing to Raffles Quay. Even Raffles’ critics acknowledge that the ambitious adventurer was shrewd to declare that the well-defended harbor, offering access to both the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, be “open to ships and vessels of every nation free of duty.”
As I walk around the building site out of which the new Raffles is emerging, I can’t help thinking how much the hotel, too, has a story that mirrors that of the metropolis that encircles it. Although many associate the establishment with the British Empire, it’s actually been a profoundly multicultural site ever since it was opened in 1887 by two Armenian brothers born in Isfahan, Tigran and Martin Sarkies. The development of their new property advanced as rapidly as the city itself had done after 1819 in what was fast becoming a Singapore trademark. The energetic proprietors opened two wings—including the Palm Court, in 1894—and, six weeks before the turn of the century, they completed a new main building with a three-story atrium and Carrara marble floors that could house five hundred diners. Trade coming into Singapore almost tripled in the twenty years after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and steamships, newspapers, travellers began to turn the planet into a worldwide web of information.
Singapore as a whole had been the first Asian city to enjoy a telephone network—as early as 1879—and Raffles would soon become the first of its hotels to boast electric fans, electrical lighting, and a French chef. It grew famous for its Raffles Dance Orchestra playing the “Raffles March,” its tea dances and fancy-dress parties and cabaret shows in the new ballroom; devil-may-care guests roller-skated across the lobby late at night, and fleets of European cars stood ready to whisk residents to every corner of the city. In 1930, when an actor fell out at the last moment, Noël Coward took the lead in his own play, Journey’s End, which was being put on in the hotel.
Some things never change
There can’t be many hotels anywhere that employ their own historian, and one blistering morning I walk down to the building across the street from Raffles to wander the back-streets of memory with Leslie Danker, the cheerful and forthcoming keeper of the hotel’s lore. After forty-six years at the hotel—working in every department from security to maintenance to food-and-beverage to the front office—he can’t shake the habit of arriving every morning at 6:30, heating up some coffee, and preparing himself for the day to come.
Very soon, he’s recalling how the area had looked when he was a boy, making his way each day to St. Joseph’s Institution down the road and then, once classes were out, to one of the five cinemas dotted around the central district and commemorated now in the names of five suites in the new Raffles. There had been a sign outside its front door after the war, he remembers, saying, “Only for Officers.” The legends that have always gathered around Raffles claim that when Japanese soldiers marched on Singapore in 1942—the British surrendered on the first day of Chinese New Year—they found the British families who had taken shelter in Raffles waltzing around its floor; it’s certainly true they had been singing, at times, “There’ll Always Be an England.” Loyal employees of the hotel had been quick to spirit away its precious silver—including the wagon in which the Sunday roast was delivered—and bury it so it could be excavated at war’s end. And after three and a half years in which the place became the Syonan Ryokan—the “Inn of the Light of the South” for occupying Japanese soldiers—it turned into a kind of transit zone and resting place once hostilities subsided.
There can’t be many hotels anywhere that employ their own historian.
When finally he found the courage to enter, years later, for a drink, Leslie recalls, he was the only non-Caucasian in sight, apart from the waiters; yet after he joined the staff, in 1972, it was to find that, though the majority of the guests were British, much of the staff could barely manage a sentence in English. In those days, he remembers with fondness, every guest’s preferences were recorded by hand, and kept in thick books stored inside a back room; the front gates were closed every night at midnight, and late-night revelers would have to push and clank at the grille to get back in.
Home is where the guests are
When the hotel closed its doors in March 1989 for a major makeover, more than three thousand people gathered to say goodbye; a British couple who had been in residence for seven years had to pack their bags. As the $160 million restoration proceeded, over two and a half years, Leslie and his camera roamed over the site, excavating a piece of crockery denoting “Emmerson’s Tiffin Rooms” and shards of china with the Sarkies Brothers’ logo on them. He came upon a pair of horseshoes—and then the skeleton of a full-grown horse—dating from the time when stables had stood behind the Palm Court wing.
Raffles may draw thousands every day, but somehow it never feels crowded—or like anywhere else. So many hotels I visit, unable to make me feel truly at home, simply try to eliminate every trace of the foreign; their look-alike corridors attempt to comfort the weary by presenting the same layout you’ve seen in Frankfurt and Dallas and Abu Dhabi. But I’ve never been able to make emotional contact with a skyscraper, or in one, either; and though I’ve stayed in eleven other hotels in Singapore, I’ve never found myself thinking back on their ceilings and lawns.
It’s not just the nostalgic furnishings and familiar libations here that take one back; it’s the sense of leisure and rocking-chair ease.
At heart, home is the place where you have memories; the place that goes so deep inside you that the story of your life seems to unfold there. And as I think that, I recall the front office manager at Raffles who comes in on his day off to accompany a loyal guest—really, an old friend—on her 6:30am walk. That guest, Madame Shoof, from Germany, has stayed in Raffles more than fifty times by now—she visited four times a year, for a month each time—and refers to the place where she has her own chair in the lobby as her “second home,” its staff her “second family.”
A couple from Switzerland has been coming to Raffles to stay for six months of every year; the two of them dine at the same table every evening and toast one another with Champagne every night. A British lord would return every year with his chum so they could dress up in top hats and roister around town like Bertie Wooster and a pal from the Drones. These people seldom think of Raffles as a hotel; it’s their old friend’s place in the country where they can drop in whenever the time is right, and it’s as familiar as home, and as comforting.
The Resident Historian of Raffles remembers two colleagues who shared stories with him of working with Somerset Maugham in the hotel. One, Mr. Ahmad, came away with a signed photograph, and the other, Ho Wee How, recalled how Maugham would carry his table out into the garden to write and then urge his friend on the staff to learn how to read so he could enjoy a Somerset Maugham short story or two.
By the time Somerset Maugham arrived in Raffles for the first time, in 1921, he’d already been to China and the South Seas; having been born and spent his first ten years in France before shipping off to English boarding school, he’d always known how to witness England’s encounters with the world from both sides of the table. It was in Singapore that Maugham smoked his first bowl of opium and it was in Singapore, having recently swanned around Los Angeles with Charlie Chaplin, that he got his first and strongest view of the complex and ambiguous relationship between Empire and its subjects. Kipling had found the “native town” unexpectedly far from the colonial quarter; Maugham saw them as surprisingly close, and their denizens all over one another.
“Singapore is the meeting place of a hundred peoples,” Maugham wrote in one of his most famous stories, “The Letter.” Always on alert for restlessness and longing, he described an Englishman for whom “England’s a foreign land,” and a Chinese clerk who had studied law in London and who spoke “beautiful English, accentuating each word with precision.” Singapore was where those who found themselves stuck in villages—or on plantations—came for a taste of the glamorous larger world; amidst the “gay, multitudinous streets of the city,” Maugham registered “Englishmen in their topees and white ducks, speeding past in motorcars or at leisure in their rickshaws,” and “ships of all nations lying at anchor.”
Maugham would carry his table out into the garden to write and urge his friend on the staff to learn to read, so he could enjoy a short story or two.
Maugham’s great gift, contrary to appearances, was never to be blasé or detached. A character in one of his stories goes to a museum, “but it was outside, in the streets, that was most thrilling.” Singapore itself and Raffles were the real museums for Maugham, and their constantly changing exhibitions could move a young man to laugh “aloud with joy”. Ultimately it was the romance of abroad that fascinated Maugham, and liberated him: the long line of rickshas, the sampans, the “Chinese shops on Victoria Road,” and everything that was sensuous and starlit and heavy with torch ginger blossoms.
“There’s nothing much to see in Singapore,” a sailor declares in one story. To which another says, with every kind of insinuation, “I’ve found plenty.”
As I go through forty-six years of photos with the Resident Historian, there’s one thing that strikes me again and again. Somehow, over the space of almost half a century, Leslie Danker looks almost the same in every photo. The slim, bright-eyed young dreamer I see in the images from the 1970s is more than evident in the trim, laughing new friend who’s sitting beside me. He’ll have turned eighty in August, just after he’s entered his third version of Raffles. But eighty in this space looks very much like thirty.
Pico Iyer is the author of two novels and 12 works of nonfiction—including Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, both out now—and has been named the first official writer-in-residence at Raffles Singapore.